Narendra Modi, his speeches & politics: the art of public speaking

The relationship between public speaking & politics is symbiotic. Politics requires high degree of communication skill to sustain a dialogue with masses, inspire hope & rally public opinion

Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Rakesh Batabyal

Several ancient thinkers like Aristotle were suspicious of ‘Democracy’ as a form of Government. Democracy, they suspected, would allow the rise of demagogues who would sway public opinion with their powerful oratory and persuasive speeches, a form of Government in which calm reasoning would be secondary in formulating public policies and indeed public opinion.

Classical thinkers spent considerable time poring over public pronouncements by public figures and studied the rhetoric used by them. They classified public speeches into three categories, political, forensic and ceremonial.

Political speeches, they noticed, were necessarily expedient. Their thrust was to convince the audience that if accepted, what the speaker proposed would deliver good and, if rejected, would bring harm to people. They invariably focus on the future, a bright future if the speaker is in a position of power.

Lawyers adopt a different stance in courtrooms, where their ‘forensic oratory’ is put to good use in attacking the opposite side or in defending one’s own. They usually deal with the past while ceremonial speeches focus on the present and are businesslike.

Public speeches by Indian leaders before and just after Independence indicate a few common features. They often display a sound, often profound, understanding of international history and politics. Many of them were educated and trained in England and that must have helped. The brilliance of Ram Mohan Roy, NG Chandavarkar, Surendranath Banerjee or Mahadev Govind Ranade have few parallels in the world.

The other remarkable feature was the conspicuous absence of harsh words, sarcasm or words showing disrespect to people differing violently with them. It is worth keeping in mind that they were battling against one of the most conservative societies of the time.

What also stood out was their confidence and breadth of knowledge. Not a word of self-deprecation or self-pity can be found in most public speeches on record. The speeches were marked by references to texts that showed their understanding and knowledge. Ram Mohan Roy’s debate with both the Church as well as the orthodox sections of Hindu society by using his Upanishadic knowledge is a case in point.

Some of the best Indian speeches also displayed deft marshalling of facts and figures, reports of different commissions or the annual budgets of different institutions and assemblies including the Central Legislative Assembly where leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale or Pherozeshah Mehta stood out for their brilliant speeches.

They encouraged fellow Indians to expand their knowledge if they wanted to get the better of British bureaucracy which had the crème de la crème of the middle class serving the Crown. Dadabhai Naurozi challenged the British in their own Parliament with their own data.

Finally, the public speeches were steeped with a sense of responsibility and were ethical in the sense the speakers appeared to be conscious that they were setting standards in society.

Exceptions: There were exceptions. Several socio-religious groups often challenged leaders in intemperate language. In the forties MA Jinnah also delivered increasingly provocative speeches. Nehru once lost his cool in 1946 and was immediately pulled up by Gandhi. But by and large the national leaders kept their composure under grave provocations and did not allow their speeches to reflect any narrowness of spirit.

Post-independent country witnessed a large number of leaders rising up the ranks, occupying positions of power and delivering speeches, ceremonial or otherwise. Many of them emerged as powerful speakers and seldom in a nation’s history did so many brilliant speakers dazzled people with their eloquence. JP, Ram Manohar Lohia, JB Kripalani, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, George Fernandes, Krishna Menon, and a thousand others who flourished under Nehru.

Nehru quite often enjoyed a debate with many of them, being himself a sparkling speaker. Where else would one have found speakers like Bupesh Gupta, Hiren Mukherjee, Alagesan, SA Dange, Renu Chakravarty, Hem Barua, Surendra Nath Dwivedi, Piloo Mody, and many others in just one generation. Krishna Menon dazzled on the international stage, displaying what an independent spirit of India could mean to the international community.

As the country settled down and the first flush of independence and the attendant euphoria began to wane, speeches delivered by socialist and communist leaders increasingly began to make their mark by showing the mirror to those in power. But despite sharp speeches, dignity was seldom missing.

The sixties, especially after the debacle in 1962 and the death of Nehru, public speeches began deteriorating. Hindu communal groups launched a vituperative campaign against Indira Gandhi aided by abusive propaganda. Indira Gandhi spoke on several occasions about the dangers of such attacks on civility and finer sensibilities that the national freedom movement had bestowed.

By the nineties, however, the richness of language and finer political sensibilities began to disappear from public speaking, which became strident, even coarse. Rare flashes from Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee notwithstanding, public speeches began to lack civility and betrayed shallowness of both vision and knowledge.

One of the few exceptions was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who brought his brand of humour and sophistication to aim at political opponents. His speeches stood out because of their stark difference in the midst of largely pedestrian speeches.

Narendra Modi & public speaking: It is in this backdrop that one has to see Narendra Modi’s emergence as a powerful public speaker wielding enormous influence. Few leaders speak as extensively as he does, often delivering three public speeches in a day. Magnified by TV channels and social media, his speeches seem to overwhelm the country as if he is representing not just the Government but also the BJP and the RSS.

His speeches need to be analysed at greater length because of their influence and the sheer volume of words that he has spoken. But off hand, a few features can be detected straightaway.

His speeches are ‘political’ and expedient, calling upon people to trust him because a lack of trust in him would be disastrous. A constant and consistent feature of his speeches has also been self-pity and victimhood. Ever since the Gujarat riots of 2002 he has lost few opportunities to declare that he has been a victim of conspiracy, of machinations, of falsehood and calumny. Following Demonetisation, he even cried at a public meeting in Goa and seemed to suggest that his life was threatened by people with black money.

In his election speeches, he seems to alternate between aggressively taunting his opponents to indulging in self-pity, suggesting at one election rally in Uttar Pradesh that he is basically a ‘faqir’, a man of god, with no worldly attachment or possession and that it would not take him a moment to leave his office and go away. It is a powerful imagery that he manages to draw, never mind evidence to the contrary. His rivals either lack the skill or find it tasteless to attack him on his expensive watches, clothes, shoes and sunglasses. When they do like when Akhilesh Yadav tried the too-clever-by-half trick of suggesting that he was a ‘Gujarati Gadha’, it bommeranged on Yadav.

While his election speeches often border rants designed to be divisive, as when he alleged discrimination between ‘Shamshan’(crematorium or burning ghats) and ‘Kabristan’( graveyards or burial grounds), his addresses delivered on his monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’ are often more expansive, sometimes even statesmanlike as he lectures farmers and students alike.

Otherwise, many of his public speeches barring the official and the ceremonial, do not have enough ‘facts’ to sustain his thoughts. Nor does he seem to care much for them, depending instead on his ability to coin abbreviations and use alliterations. Who else could have thought of drawing a parallel between ‘Harvard’and ‘Hard Work’? Even more bizarre was his reference to the historical figure Alexander, who he claimed had reached Pataliputra !

It is not that he does not have a sense of History. His speeches are steeped in the ‘Hindu nationalist’ brand of history favoured by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). For example, he does keep reminding his audience that ‘our freedom fighters’ have been fighting foreign oppressors for 1,200 years. “After around eight years, it will be 75 years of Indian Freedom”, he said, “Diamond Jubilee of our independence, and we have to decide that what ode do we want to give to the freedom fighters who fought for 1,200 years, how will we build that great nation to pay tribute to them.”

From his point of view, it serves to gloss over the fact that the RSS played little or no role in fighting British colonialism. But when he addressed a rally at Meerut, he invoked the ‘first war of independence’ that began from Meerut in 1857.

Modi’s emergence coincided with a time when the art of public speaking was going through a drought. The managerial speeches, often written by those educated at management schools and marshalling facts to prove a point, were the norm but were rarely inspiring.

He also cashed in on the advantage he had over others when it came to speaking in Hindi. Few leaders barring Lalu Prasad can match his rhetoric, barbs and feints delivered with flourish in Hindi. And since public speakers from the South and the eastern states of Bengal and Assam do not speak Hindi as well as he does, he is rarely challenged effectively.

His public speeches also incessantly harp on corruption and successfully repeats the claim that he alone stands against corruption while the corrupt has ganged up against him.

Modi has also used ceremonial occasions to make political points. In Japan, he made a snide remark about Indian secularists while speaking at a ceremonial function. Similarly, he used a few other formal occasions abroad to make political comments on the opposition at home.

Powerful oratory, even when misleading, is today magnified manifold by technology. And few can fault Modi or others for using social media, TV and radio to reach out to the people. It is up to the media, public intellectuals and political parties to question and analyse public speeches and expose, if necessary, the fallacies and the false propaganda, if any.

Dr Rakesh Batabyal is the author of Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches and works on India’s rhetorical traditions.

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